Heavy on the Punchlines, ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Spins a 1950s Yarn of Heartbreak and Empowerment

The entertainment industry finds itself battling a bad news barrage, with each day unearthing unsettling revelations about some high-rolling executive or blockbuster actor or, perhaps most appropriately of all, side-splitting comedian taking advantage of female contemporaries. It truly feels, now more than ever, like people need a sharp-tongued heroine to stand up to the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, someone who isn’t afraid to march into the long-standing boys club, head held high, and plant a flag for woman-kind.

Insulated in her own slice of Manhattan housewife heaven and with mom and dad right upstairs for emotional and child-rearing support, Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) doesn’t quite fit that mould. She’s, quite frankly, busy with more pressing things, like waiting for her husband to fall asleep before she can remove her makeup and putting it all on again before he opens his eyes, all to maintain the superficial veneer for which the 1950s are famous. She’s playing the part, the one she was born to play, or so her overbearing parents, Rose (Marin Hinkle) and Abe (Tony Shalhoub), keep telling her.

This time trying her hand at a period piece, “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino paints a colorful portrait of domestic bliss before tearing it all down and turning a woman whose foremost worry is having a rabbi over for Yon Kippur breakfast into an underdog whose circumstances endow her with unspeakable charisma. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” revels in this transformation, taking a painstaking look at all the costs of such a metamorphosis. In one sense, it’s a charming story about a woman forging friendships and standing up to a deeply entrenched patriarchy, but at its core, the latest Amazon series is a probing look into the commonly held idea that if you want to be funny, you have to get hurt first.

Fans of “Gilmore Girls” or any of Sherman-Palladino’s other projects attest to an ever-present rapier wit. In the case of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” it’s Miriam who wields it, contrary to what Joel (Michael Zegen), her aspiring comedian of a husband, wants to believe. Whether she’s bribing the club’s booker with her brisket or studiously taking notes on audience reactions, it’s Miriam who’s doing all the legwork. Just by listening to her make small talk and exchange juicy bits of neighborhood gossip, it’s clear that Miriam’s the one with the funny bone while her other half couldn’t recognize a good joke if it walked up and spat in his eye.

But when Joel walks out on Miriam and their two kids for a secretary who can’t even sharpen a pencil properly, the illusion comes crashing down, and viewers get a glimpse past the aforementioned veneer of superficiality that is the 1950s. With one selfish move, Joel rips away the life the couple spent four years building. And just like that, Miriam has nothing and is nothing. It’s a cruel world, a point that hits home when Miriam’s parents blame her for Joel hitting the road. With a society full of unrealistic expectations, Miriam finds her calling doing what Joel could not, and she’s damn good at it, too.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” really hits its stride when Miriam’s on-stage. Whether she’s ranting about Joel’s secretary, who’s “dumber than a Brillo pad,” or openly worrying about her baby daughter’s gargantuan, Winston Churchill-esque forehead, Miriam’s comedy resonates despite its decidedly unstructured approach. It’s conversational in nature, and the New York audience eats it up. Add a dynamic supporting cast of Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein) and the legendary Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), and Miriam is well on her way to taking New York’s cut-throat comedy scene by the horns.

Where the show misses a step, though, is everywhere else. The familial tensions between Miriam and Joel’s parents adds drama, but nothing that made the first several episodes fulfilling. There’s a lot of downtime devoted to arguing, gossiping or both, and the viewer spends it wondering when Miriam’s getting back on the stage. The show oozes with charm and has its fair share of laugh out loud moments, but it’s hard to get invested in a show that constantly retreads what made the pilot so special, constantly building to another moment where Miriam finally graces the stage. That’s the music, and everything in between is more white noise than anything worthwhile.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” premieres Nov. 29 on Amazon Prime.